Kalamazoo lays groundwork for expanding awareness and care of childhood trauma issues

Editor's Note: This is the second of three stories that look at new ways professionals are responding to childhood trauma. 

When it comes to dealing with the pervasive and long-reaching effects of childhood trauma, it doesn’t just take a village, it takes a city, a county, a state and a nation.

And as many seasoned mental health professionals and educators know, change often starts with a task force and the creation of a policy that helps align the institutions and agencies that serve the community.

Nichole Westrate Before a policy can go into place, however, the problem needs to be identified.

Nichole Westrate, Director of the YWCA Children’s Center in Kalamazoo, began observing firsthand questionable behaviors in the Y’s early childhood classrooms when demographics changed from a majority of private pay children to a majority of tuition assistance children. This change posed new and unforeseen challenges.

“These were not just behavioral issues. We noticed something else was going on,” Westrate said. “When kiddos can’t deal with stress emotionally, it turns into physical symptoms. It just does. There’s a shift in how we’re starting to look at things. And thank God, because what we were doing before wasn’t working.”

Westrate said the behaviors she and staff members observed in the children often seemed to follow patterns.

“What I noticed was that kids were going through stages as if they were triggered. Well, what does that mean? Let’s find out more about this,” she said. “We identified some traits. The first layer we talk about as our Tiggers. They displayed the in-your- face-you-can’t-ignore-me behaviors. Unsafe stuff. A child would get triggered by Lord knows what, a light, a touch, a noise. In response, they were darting out of the classroom or harming themselves, another child or the teacher with words or actions. Fight, flight, freeze. That was happening a lot.

“Then we noticed that some kids are like Eeyores and that they were going undetected by staff. I worry about those types of kiddos the most. Generally, they might have less attention paid to them than normal because they seem so complacent and just go with the flow.”

Jennifer Nottingham Westrate said the teachers did not feel equipped to deal with these behaviors. “We wondered who else was addressing this in our community. The answer was nobody."

When the United Way of Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Regions initiated a task force on childhood trauma, Westrate wanted to have a seat at the table to speak for early childhood education.

“You have to have a community that is ready to support each other because when you work with childhood trauma, you have to dive into some emotions you otherwise might not want to dive into,” she said. 

Thanks to some attuned community members who helped identify childhood trauma as an important issue in Southwest Michigan, the last year and a half has seen a significant rise in public awareness and proposed programs to meet that need. Professionals are recognizing that childhood behaviors formerly seen as bad, such as non-compliance and aggression, or those related to learning disabilities or attention issues, such as Attention Deficit Disorder, may be responses to adverse childhood experiences.

“It’s a huge paradigm shift, “ said Jennifer Nottingham, Associate Director of Community Impact at the UWBCKR. “If you flip the script on any kid who is ostensibly being bad, and realize the kid may be acting out because of trauma, you change the way you respond to the child, and the child changes the way he or she responds to you.”

Local mental health professionals and educators resoundingly wanted to address the issue of childhood trauma through policy change after a community screening in 2015 of “The Raising of America,” the documentary series about early childhood development that explores how social conditions, public policies, and inequities impact children. 

Rochelle Habeck In addition, awareness was raised by results of an oft-cited Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study sponsored by Kaiser Permanente’s Health Appraisal Clinic and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that determined there was a significant correlation between childhood stress and the likelihood of adult issues, including substance abuse, mental health, suicide, illness, and homelessness, among others.

Out of concern for the way trauma was affecting local children, a UWBCKR Task Force called “Raising Kalamazoo: Reducing Trauma and Building Resilience,” was born. The group, comprised of community mental health professionals, is working to educate the public and create cohesion between institutions and agencies in the community that are addressing trauma.

“We want to promote the organizational capacity for trauma care and response and discuss opportunities for collaboration and support,” said Nottingham, who co-leads the task force. 

This work involves connecting early childhood education centers, schools, social service agencies, assessment centers, and families, through trainings and educational resources, including a community summit in what members hope is a movement as intensive and wide-reaching as what is now taking place in war-torn countries such as Rwanda

“I think we’re on an important path,” said Rochelle Habeck, Task Force Co-leader and Co-Chair of the Education Committee for Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy & Action in the Community (ISAAC). “If you help people understand the information related to childhood trauma, show them the data, and explain how things like protective factors or resilience are the antidote to making a person less likely to experience a fight or flight reaction, then they understand how a community can heal.” 

In Kalamazoo, efforts are underway to promote understanding of childhood trauma particularly at the early childhood Kathleen Stuby education level, where organizations such as the YWCA and the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Association (KRESA) are holding workshops to educate staff.

As Kathleen Stuby, KRESA’s Early Childhood Director points out, knowing how to identify and acknowledge the effects of childhood trauma is just a first step in the journey. Next, comes training early childhood educators how to intervene. While studies have shown that childhood trauma can have significant impacts on brain functioning, particularly related to the limbic system and fight/flight/freeze responses, early intervention can help promote resiliency.

“We are increasingly training teachers to teach social emotional support skills to their students, and this new focus on trauma falls in line with that,” says Stuby. “A lot of the latest research says if the social-emotional structure isn’t there, you are not getting as much out of the educational aspect.”

To further that goal, KRESA will be sponsoring an Early Childhood Institute in the fall, open to all, that will focus on childhood trauma and early childhood literacy.  “Once everyone is educated about what the issue is, we can begin to work on how to deal with it in the classroom.”

Habeck and other task members including Westrate, recently attended “Creating Healing Communities: A Statewide Initiative to Address Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in Michigan” in Lansing. She is excited about the prospects for healing from trauma not just locally but in the entire state. 

“What I appreciate about the task force and the Michigan ACE initiative is that they focus on a model of the self-correcting potential of a healthy community,” she said. “This is just a beginning.”

Theresa Coty O'Neil is a Kalamazoo area freelance writer. Her articles have appeared in many local publications and her short stories have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review and West Branch, among others. 

Marty Blackwell is a freelance illustrator and designer in the metro Detroit area. Her work can be found here.

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

The first story in this series can be found here:

Recognition grows that children's behavior problems may be trauma related
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